It struck me recently that we pay far too little attention to the difference between novices and casual users. A novice is someone who has just embarked upon a course of study and whose intent is to become a master of that subject. A casual user is someone who just wants to get a job done and has no interest in mastery. Their information needs are very different.
Being a casual user is not the same thing as being an infrequent user. Most commuters are frequent drivers, but they have no interest in the art or science of performance motoring. They are casual drivers, even though they spend two hours a day behind the wheel. Many people are casual users of their cell phones, even though they use them daily. Being a casual user is not about how often you use something, but how interested you are in improving and perfecting your knowledge and use of that thing.
As a tribe, technical communicators don’t seem to be very keen on casual users. When we decide to classify content by experience level, we usually use terms like “novice” and “expert”. I have never seen any classification schema that use any synonym of “casual” or that made any kind of distinction between novice and casual.
The casual user does nothing to satisfy the technical communicator’s desire to teach, or their desire to be read. Novices are much more satisfying to write for. Thus we may fancy that when new users open their brand new widget, the first thing they are going to want to do is sit down and read an 80-page tutorial.
Minimalism, while it recognized that the new user probably is not going to read the 80-page tutorial, is also based on the assumption that the reader is a novice, not a casual user. It is, after all, based on university studies of adult learners, not university studies of adults doing everything they can to get a job done without having to learn anything at all. (That would be a cool study. Someone should do that.) Minimalism may be a more reasonable approach to novices, but it is still specifically aimed at novices.
This is not to say that there are no writers who write for casual users, because there certainly are many who do so. These writers often focus on very precise and detailed procedures for a fixed set of operations. They do not ask broader questions about the user’s task or purpose. They do not invite further exploration. They do not imagine that the user is going to learn this procedure, just do it and forget it. And if their users are casual users, and if they have enumerated the fixed set of operations correctly, these writers serve their readers well.
But it seems to me that we need to pay much more attention to whether we are writing for casual users or novices. As a novice, a procedure written for a casual user is very frustrating, because it does nothing to advance your knowledge or mastery. It gives you no way to go beyond the literal steps described in the text.
For a casual user, equally, being given a text written for novices is maddening. It tries to teach me stuff, when I just want to get my job done. It invites me to explore, when all I want to do is push the right button. It confuses me and wastes my time.
If you are producing consumer devices, chances are most of your users are casual users (no matter how frequent their use might be). If you are producing industrial tools, then your new users are likely always novices, not casual. If you are producing office software, experience suggests that you have something approaching a 90/10 ratio of casual users to novices. There is always that one person in the office who really knows how to make Excel sing. He began as a novice and became a master. Everyone else is a casual user and intends to stay that way.
The Web does a great job of catering to novices. It creates a colloquium of novices and masters and preserves a record of their interactions so that novices who come later can benefit as well. The Web does not always serve the casual user as well, not so much because the answer they need is not available, but because it requires some qualifying work on their part to figure out whether to trust the procedure they have found, which is more intellectual work than a casual user is generally up for. What a casual user really wants is a label on the object itself with simple step by step instructions.
One thing the web does do well for the casual user is provide access to instructions for off-label uses of products. Want to know how to use your stereo speakers to excite non-Newtonian fluids. Sony’s manual is silent. The Web will tell you how.
Another audience that is not always well served by the Web is the master. In some ways the web is great for masters, because it lets them find and communicate with each other. But the Web does not seem to do a good job of producing the kind of good in-depth reference material that masters need. (For instance, the Web does not contain a single good XSLT reference. There are lots of crappy ones, but if you really want to program in XSLT you need to get copies of Michael Kay’s Programmer’s Guides for XSLT and XPath.)
Two thoughts then:
- Technical communications needs to pay much more attention to the difference between novices and casual users, and their very different information needs.
- Tech comm has traditionally focused mostly on novices. But novices are increasingly well catered for by the Web. Perhaps we need to turn our attention to serving those users the Web does not serve as well: casual users and masters.